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Loading bricks of salt onto camels at sunrise.

New research shows that geography can affect how language sounds.

Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic

Ker Than

National Geographic

Published June 14, 2013

Languages spoken at high altitudes are more likely to contain a certain kind of sound made using short bursts of air, according to a new study.

The study, published online June 12 in the journal PLoS ONE, is the first to show that geography can influence how a language sounds.

"I had this hypothesis that [certain sounds] might be more common at high altitudes," said study author Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami.

"I was not at all convinced that I would find the evidence for it, but when I actually looked at the data, the distribution was pretty overwhelming."

Using an online database that categorizes languages based on their features, Everett analyzed the locations of about 600 of the world's 7,000 or so languages.

He found that 92 of the languages he looked at contained ejective consonants. Ejectives are sounds produced with an intensive burst of air and are not found in the English language. (Listen to Everett give an example of ejective sounds.)

Moreover, most of the languages containing ejectives were spoken in, or near, five out of six high-altitude regions around the world. A high-altitude region was defined as being more than 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level.

These regions are the North American Cordillera, the Andes and the Andean altiplano, the southern African plateau, the plateau of the East African Rift and the Ethiopian highlands, and the Caucasus range and Javakheti plateau.

Everett recalled being shocked by his discovery. "I remember stepping out from my desk and saying, 'Okay, this is kind of crazy,'" he said. "My first question was, How had we not noticed this?"

Everett speculated that ejectives are easier to produce at high altitudes because air pressure decreases with altitude, and it takes less effort to compress less-dense air.

"Some people will argue that this is just a historical accident, that it just so happens that the languages that have ejectives are spoken at high altitudes," Everett said.

"That's possible, but it's pretty unlikely ... There are really no exceptions."

Well, almost no exceptions. There is one high-altitude region where the spoken languages did not contain ejectives: the Tibetan plateau. Everett said he has no idea why Tibet is an exception.

"I really don't know," he said.

Everett is currently looking at other possible connections between geography and language. He is following up on a hypothesis, first proposed in 1996 by linguist Robert Monroe and others, that climate can affect a language's syllable structure.

"The essence of their claim is that people rely on vowels more than consonants in warm weather because people tend to be farther apart in warm weather because they're outside more, and vowels are louder than consonants," Everett said.

"I don't endorse [their] hypothesis but believe they were onto something."

Ahmed Al-Rahbi
Ahmed Al-Rahbi

Very interesting, I am gonna conduct similar research that cover another part of the world and confirm or deny these claims.

Micah Neely
Micah Neely

The exceptions in the Himalayas could be because this area is filled with tonal Tibeto-Burman languages. Ejectives are frequently (almost always?) completely voiceless syllables, so they wouldn't be able to distinguish tone in ejective syllables.

Fascinating hypothesis. I think a lot of phonologists are pre-biased against this conclusion because it isn't a purely abstract rationalistic model; Oh no! We can't have the physical world intruding on Language!

Anthony Ricigliano
Anthony Ricigliano

Very interesting information on languages being influenced by geography!

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown

@Roland Schuhmann  It would be inaccurate to say "This theory has already been proven to be wrong" since the article merely brings into question certain aspects of the study. Just because scientists disagree about the validity of a hypothesis does not mean it is wrong. More accurately it means that it is still being debated. There is a correlation, but now the question becomes how strong and have they isolated all the variables. This hypothesis has not made it to the stage of theory for sure : )

Monty Vierra
Monty Vierra

@Jeff Brown @Roland Schuhmann After reading the article here, I opened the second link provided by RS. The counter argument offered there by Asya Pereltsvaig struck me as rather compelling. I also started to read the fascinating discussion at that site. Half way down, though, I came across the assertion by AP ("call me a cynic") that the apparent reason that Ker Than wrote the article for National Geographic and why NG published it was because the "media" are apparently under the sway of the Everett name and the "family connection." I have to admit my abysmal ignorance in never having heard of Everett or Pereltsvaig or Roland Schuhmann or any of the other esteemed experts pronouncing on this topic, but I have heard of ad hominem argument. Resorting to an ad hominem claim is one of the warning signs of a weak argument. (Sorry if this post comes out in two versions.)

Robb Kvasnak
Robb Kvasnak

@Monty Vierra @Jeff Brown @Roland Schuhmann 

Of course, one can also turn the question around - and the findings would be interesting in themselves: are there ejectives in low-altitude languages? Furthermore, are there some communalities between highland spoken languages inter se as opposed to their respective lowland spoken dialects?

Chris Smith
Chris Smith

@First Last @Chris Smith @Roland Schuhmann First off, lecturers at Stanford are hardly treated well from what I hear (have a friend who knows several). We both know that's far different from a professor. Anyway, the article addresses the Tibetan issues, I can tell and I just skimmed it. And is First Last a real name? Looks like you're trolling-- this ain't youtube. Yet I came back specially for this purpose--so who am I to complain :)

First Last
First Last

@Chris Smith@Roland Schuhmann 

If credentials matter to you so much, it might interest you to know that both authors teach at a little place called Stanford, and Pereltsvaig has a PhD in Linguistics, which is what she teaches there. And what about "the complete lack of ejective sounds in the WALS database in the world’s most extensive highland area, that of the Tibetan Plateau and its associated mountain ranges"?

Chris Smith
Chris Smith

@Roland Schuhmann So because someone (who from what I can tell is not a researcher/professor) claims "their analysis suggests otherwise" that's proof to you? The links you sent are to the same meandering blog, not to a journal article in a major science periodical. Which do you expect us to believe?

Roland Schuhmann
Roland Schuhmann

@Chris Smith The following quotes seem to be quite clear: "But is the correlation of ejectives with high-altitude languages found elsewhere in the world?  Our analysis suggests otherwise"... "It appears that the correlation between absolute elevation and the presence of ejectives, needed to sustain Everett’s arguments, is weak at best."



Chris Smith
Chris Smith

@Roland Schuhmann @Jeff Brown I'm with Jeff, to the word. That blog site does no such thing as disprove a "theory" (there's none in question in this case), nor does it show the correlation doesn't exist. 


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